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War Problems

Solo exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery, London, 2008

War Problems

By Becky Milligan

We’re standing near some low, mud-moulded buildings in the middle of a small village, it’s dusty and a dry heat makes us sweat under our layers of clothes. We peek through the gap in the walls and catch a glimpse of a courtyard where small Afghan girls are all eyes on their teacher, making notes and occasionally giggling. A rare sight.

We have travelled for a day from Jalalabad to witness it, crisscrossing the mountainous region, dashing across the frontlines on uneven bombed-out roads, where the shells of burnt-out tanks lie rotting in ditches. The Taleban were in charge then, before the War on Terror had erupted. Education for girls was severely restricted. After puberty, they were compelled to wear a burka, masking their shape and form.

Working was virtually impossible since all women had to be accompanied by a male relative when outside the home. Also, bizarrely, they were strictly forbidden to wear white shoes. But here, far away from the seat of power in Kabul, the laws were more relaxed. We are journalists and our aim is to interview some schoolchildren and teachers for our news programme. We grab our cameras and start to roll.

To begin with the teachers are reluctant to speak but after a little cajoling and promises of anonymity they agree to be interviewed, talking hesitantly at first, then with ease. Filming is also forbidden; we are travelling incognito as aid-agency workers, recording how women survive in this medieval regime.

After two or three hours we are pleased with the day’s work and relax by a water pump. One of the thin sinewy village boys grabs the lever and with huge effort pushes it up and down, up and down, and water gushes out.

Now in Copenhagen I am in the magnificent, cavernous, former Carlsberg factory where John Kørner’s large canvases hang, each representing one of the sixteen Danish soldiers killed in Afghanistan during the War on Terror. I notice a painting entitled Mikkel and it takes me straight back to that village. Instead of my producer and me sitting by the water pump there is a faceless figure, a Danish soldier, lying beside it, water splashing on to his body. He is limp, exhausted, probably from the loss of blood, redness spills out on to the whiteness of the painting. On one side a grey shape looms threateningly.

It reminds me of a village I went to,’ I tell John when he is showing me the paintings.

Oh, I am glad, because I painted a pump from my imagination.’

He’s going to die isn’t he?‘ I ask him.

He is going to die. Yes.

I feel a pang of regret and sadness and wonder whether his grieving family have come to see the painting and what they make of it.

I nudge my producer and point towards the hazy horizon. What’s that? A cloud of dust is moving towards us at great speed. All our gear is laid out on the stony ground, villagers have been chatting amiably with us about what we are doing and who we want to talk to, offering us plenty of tea and food. We now all fall silent and watch in horror. A convoy of open-backed, four-wheel-drive Toyota pick-up trucks are nearly upon us. Young Talibs, we now see, are crammed in, a bobbing crowd of black turbans dressed in Shalwar-kameez, Kalashnikovs swinging gaily at their sides.

Read the whole interview


Press release
’War Problems’ still in progress.

First 16 patings was shown at the U-Turn Quadrennial, Copenhagen, 2008.

Followed by a solo exhibition ’War Problems’, with additional new paintings, at Gallery Victoria Miro, London, 2008.

Later 5 new paintings was shown at the exhibition ’Jacob , Sebastian, Benjamin, Jacob and Dan’ at Andersen’s Contemporary, Berlin 2009.

(The series of paintings increases as long as there is Danish soldiers dying in the war on terror in Afghanistan, so far John has painted 23 of the total 42 fallen danish soldiers. Each painting has been titel with the first name of the fallen danish soldiers.)





21 Afghanistan motifs printed at Atelje Larsen, Denmark
One print for every soldier dying in Afghanistan